Friday 15 December 2017

Worst is over for League -- or is it?

IT was one of the most exciting sporting weeks of the year for me. Unfortunately, the chances are that it's just another run-of-the-mill sporting week for you.

Why? Because Friday saw the beginning of another League of Ireland season, a moment when the possibilities are infinite and dreams have not yet had to endure a painful collision with reality. For fans of the league, it's an immensely exciting time.

Unfortunately, it will mean little or nothing to the majority of people who read this column. Because while the Sunday Independent might be the Manchester United of Irish newspapers circulation wise, the League of Ireland is the sporting version of an ailing local rag with a loyal but limited readership. Or, as I prefer to think of it, the equivalent of The Fall, the Mekons, Cabaret Voltaire or any other great rock band which pursued a career to the general indifference of the listening public. Either way, it makes little impact on the consciousness of the average Irish sports fan.

I will always maintain that if people gave the league a try, they'd realise how much they'd been missing. But the events of the last year have made me realise that the scepticism many people feel about it is not wholly ill-founded.

A troubled season which saw, among other things, Drogheda United in court with financial problems, Dundalk cutting players' wages and Bohemians having to receive an advance from the FAI in order to keep the club out of financial trouble, ended farcically with Derry City being demoted from the top flight for providing the league with false financial information.

And if this wasn't damaging enough for the league, the miserable saga of Cork City seemed to occupy most of the close season. A sorry tale including bounced cheques, unpaid wages and threatened strikes among other things ended with the league, which had been so keen to stick the knife into Derry, giving the club several chances to keep their place in the top flight.

Eventually the financial disarray was too much for even the FAI to tolerate and Cork were consigned to the first division, their place being taken in the top flight by Bray Wanderers who had spent the close season convinced they would be playing at the level below.

Bray's manager is Eddie Gormley, who last month described the league as "a laughing stock." Gormley is a wholly admirable figure, a magnificent midfielder on the St Pat's team which won league titles in 1996, 1998 and 1999 and a gutsy manager at the Carlisle Grounds where, on a shoestring budget, he put together a team of young players playing attractive football and then had to watch them struggling against more experienced teams from clubs paying wages they couldn't actually afford. If he thinks it's a laughing stock, what hope is there of convincing the uncommitted fan that it's not?

It has been a terrible couple of years for the League of Ireland, a graceless lurch from one disaster to another. Which is ironic considering the FAI's takeover of the league in 2006 was supposed to usher in a new era for domestic soccer.

Those deluded souls who believed this would happen had forgotten one of the immutable laws of Irish life: There is nothing so badly run that the FAI wouldn't make a worse job of it.

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